The American Dream(s)

BioShock Infinite and the analysis of a nation’s impulses

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Action Adventure Criticism Life Shooters

A word at the outset: I’ve spent about three hours of so of Irrational’s new BioShock title.  Mild spoilers will follow regarding the type of world the game takes place in, but nothing beyond, and very little to do with the plot – I simply haven’t gotten there yet.  That said, I’d recommend going in fresh if you haven’t touched the game yet… part of the joy is in the game’s surprises.

During my first thirty minutes or so with BioShock Infinite, I played with an audience.  When I was launched into the dark sky, burst through the clouds and caught my first sight of the luminous city of Columbia, everyone said some variation on one thing:

“Wow.  Pretty.”

They were far from wrong – the city is immense and seemingly in constant motion, a network of gleaming rails, freshly-painted pastel storefronts and towering monuments.  The design somehow makes the glowing displays viscerally exciting, as they must have been when electric light was about as old as cell phones are now.  The sounds of soft music are heard, ethereal and sweet.  It’s a marvel.

After about twenty minutes, apparently having fully absorbed the impressiveness of the world, an onlooker asked, “So, you’re gonna have to start killing people soon, right?”

Point being, Infinite’s city in the clouds stays a paradise for quite a while.  Only once you’ve had ample time to stroll through the streets and be charmed by the ever-present sunlight does it slap you hard with a type of ugliness I haven’t seen in another video game to date.

Once the curtain is pulled back, it’s clear that Columbia’s swelling pride, her meticulously clean boulevards and endless street fairs, all root from a combination of strict religion and hardline nationalist identity.  And the byproducts of this combination are both idolatry of the founders and a hatred of outsiders of any sort.

It shocked me to see so many offensive ethnic caricatures adorning the posters and statues of Columbia, but to be honest, the fact that BioShock Infinite’s game world contained both “White” and “Colored” bathrooms is the detail that made me stop playing, actually stop out of shock.  I think it’s because, in games like the original BioShock, the Fallout titles and, most of all, Deus Ex, trolling bathrooms is a favorite pastime of mine.  It’s an essential joy of video games to be able to see what the designers have hidden in the spaces we call “private” in real life.  So to be confronted with such a gutturally disturbing thing as segregation in this place where I’m using to gleefully searching for Easter Eggs and flushing toilets randomly was a unique experience.

“Please leave,” the black attendant tells me as I enter the “Colored” restroom, searching for ammo or coins.  “If they find you in here, I’ll take the blame.”

This BioShock, in both reveling for a long time in the beauty of its world – almost haughtily, as if to say, “We outdid ourselves, didn’t we?” – and then diving headfirst into clear xenophobia, is making another philosophical case, just like the first BioShock did.

Now I know digging into BioShock games like they are Nietzsche texts is getting a bit old now, and since I’m not even done with my first play-through I’ll spare you too heavy an attempt at deconstruction.  However it occurs to me that the BioShock franchise’s  strength lies in its dramatization of very specific moments in history – American history above all.  The moments I’m talking about are the periods in the life of this nation where certain ideals became so attractive, certain movements became so timely and supported, that they threatened to become monsters.

The original BioShock’s Andrew Ryan is immensely likeable on many levels.  Sure, he’s a cold-hearted bastard, but you get to really enjoy the guy.  Part of that is thanks to the phenomenal voice acting of Armin Shimerman, but another part of it is due to his unwavering commitment to a system of thought.  His commitment to self-reliance, his total belief in “The Great Chain of industry,” is a character trait born of a reaction to the rise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of real “Big Government” through the 1930’s and 40’s.  In the beginning of the 2nd half of the 20th century, America was courting a cult of individualism that, when taken far enough, could lead to the type of anarchy into which Ryan eventually saw his Rapture fall. But the temptation to take an ideal too far is often born of revulsion of an equally extreme alternate course.  An America emboldened by victory at war and frightened by a novel rival created the perfect mixture in which to find mindsets like Andrew Ryan’s.

This ideal of man for himself is presented in BioShock through the audiotapes of Andrew Ryan that you have the privilege to listen to throughout the game.  Through soaring rhetoric he details his dream of stripping innovation of all its fetters.  While BioShock is more about the anarchy that Ryan’s free-for-all leads to, it all springs from the initial draw of his ideas, the initial undeniable attractiveness of that boldness, that initiative and that devotion to liberty that he embodies.

BioShock Infinite is more effective at encapsulating the gorgeousness of an ideal before its backlash hits.  This time around, it’s the intense, near-religious nationalist pride of the early 20th century – spurred by a burgeoning imperialism that put American ambition at odds with foreign cultures and powers.  And how tempting to believe that one’s nation is God’s chosen nation, how alluring to see all others as backward when your influence is rising and theirs seems in decline?

What the series illuminates is that such moments happen all the time through the history of any nation.  They usually self-correct before getting to BioShock territory, but these thrilling, terrifying impulses are what guide any large political movement that takes hold at any time.  What Irrational seems to have learned how to do is to harness those impulses – both the loveliness of their beginnings and the awfulness of their complete realizations – and turn them into full worlds inside which one can run, jump and shoot fireballs.

I don’t fear for the future of the series.  Behind Manifest Destiny, behind the unchecked corporate expansions of the Gilded Age – hell, even behind the pacifism and free love movements of the 60’s – are impulses that future BioShock games could no doubt easily mine for material.  In this way, the series can continue its track record as a chronicler of a nation’s biggest philosophical dreams and most intense political nightmares.  As far as shooters go, being the exorcist of a nation’s id is a pretty lofty position.  I’m convinced Bioshock has earned this weird, compelling title.

Filed Under: Action Adventure Criticism Life Shooters

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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